Nigerian leader offers Delta gunmen amnesty


Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua said on Thursday he was ready to grant amnesty to gunmen in the Niger Delta if they agreed to lay down their weapons, but the main militant group dismissed the offer as mere words.

Reuters says Yar’Adua told a meeting of leaders from his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that security chiefs would meet next week to work out “new rules of engagement” for the oil-producing region but those who gave up violence would be pardoned.

“We will grant amnesty to all those who are ready to lay down their arms. It will also include rehabilitating and integrating them into the system,” he said.

Bombings of oil pipelines and kidnappings of oil workers by armed gangs in the creeks of the Niger Delta, home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, have cut Nigeria‘s crude oil output sharply over the past three years.

The unrest has forced oil giants such as Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron to move all but their most essential foreign staff out of the region, while the drop in oil output has eaten into Nigeria‘s foreign earnings, compounding the effects of the global economic slowdown.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the region’s main militant group, dismissed Yar’Adua’s words.

“MEND will not lay down its arms because of a mere verbal statement from Mr Yar’Adua,” the group said.

“It will only be considered under a well-coordinated peace arrangement, under the supervision of a respected international mediator,” it said in an email to Reuters. 

Yar’Adua gave no details of what the National Security Council — including security chiefs and ministers — would discuss next week.

Some hawks within the security forces are thought to champion a military option, viewing the militants as plain criminals, while some politicians favour negotiation, seeing a degree of legitimacy in their grievances.

Yar’Adua has been under pressure since coming to office two years ago to address the insecurity, which added to volatility on world markets when oil prices were close to $150 a barrel last year and which is badly damaging Nigeria‘s economy now that they are languishing at a third of that level.

He created a Niger Delta ministry last September but there has been little evidence of concrete progress on the ground.

A panel set up to consider solutions, led by rights activist Ledum Mittee, recommended in December that the government should declare an amnesty and divert more funds to the region.

It also said the authorities should free MEND leader Henry Okah, on trial for gun-running and treason. MEND has made Okah’s release a top demand and says it will only release two British oil workers held for more than six months if he is freed.

The militants say they are fighting for a fairer share of the natural resources in the Niger Delta, but criminal gangs involved in the industrial-scale theft of crude oil and kidnapping for ransom are profiting from the insecurity.

Finance Minister Mansur Muhtar said last week that Nigeria‘s oil production was averaging around 1.6 million barrels per day (bpd) so far this year, well below installed capacity of 3 million bpd, partly because of the unrest.

If that trend continues for the rest of the year, Africa‘s biggest oil producer will record its lowest output in more than two decades, according to OPEC statistics.